FBI Failing at Freedom of Information

If you’re just an average person, doing a little investigating, trying to get a document you think a federal agency might have, how easy is it to get your hands on it? If it’s the FBI you’re asking – apparently not very!

Under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), federal agencies receive all sorts of requests for information. A private study has found that the FBI is the worst at actually finding and sharing the information private citizens are after: Two out of three people who ask for FBI records are told that the documents they are looking for don’t exist – a rate of failure five times worse than that achieved by other major federal agencies. Average turnaround times for request processing are also some of the longest in the government: Expedited requests take 109 days and more complicated ones take 374 days!

National Security ArchiveThe National Security Archive, a private organization that publishes declassified government docs, submits many FOIA requests to the FBI, and they think the FBI is intentionally using outdated search mechanisms to avoid having to share too much.

“The FBI knowingly uses a search process that doesn’t find relevant records,” Archive director Tom Blanton said. “Not only does this woeful performance lead to unnecessary litigation, but the bureau apparently uses the same searches in its criminal investigations as well.”

The implication for criminal investigations is a big one…info-sharing has never been a strength across intelligence agencies, but not being able to cross-reference information appropriately within an agency can be a huge hindrance. And if the FBI’s ability to meet FOIA demands is any indication, things are not looking too organized or well-catalogued at bureau HQ.

Apparently, over the past four years, the FBI told 66% of requesters (that’s 37,342 out of 56, 530 to be exact) that it had no relevant records to share. The 33 big federal agencies to which the National Security Archive turns to most frequently respond in a similar manner only 13% of the time. In 2008, only 89 requests were met in full (that’s .5% of total requestors) by the FBI; 13% (2,276) got at least some of what they were looking for.

Of course, numbers like these send reporters right to the man in charge – David Hardy, Chief of the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act Dept.
They check requests against their electronic index, Hardy says, which contains names of people, orgs, publications, activities and counterintelligence programs.

Federal Bureau of InvestigationEach name listed in the index contains a list of cross-references (names contained in the main file – ones that agents think may be useful or relevant in the future), but the list of cross-references is not exhaustive. Also interesting to note – the electronic index covers files going back only to 1980s. So what of the others? Think dusty card catalogues, folks. The FBI might need to take a few organizational tips from Google.

Hardy goes on to explain that the FBI checks the main names on the electronic index. It does not check the cross-references unless asked to, and it certainly does not check the entire file, paper or field office records unless specifically asked to.

That could be the problem.

Blanton has a point when he starts talking about modern search mechanisms that have the capacity to scan entire documents for key words. Forget Google, it’s as simple as Ctrl+F…but for that, complete electronic files need to exist. Blanton’s convinced that the FBI is digging their heels in on purpose. He has no doubt that Hardy’s department frustrates FBI agents as well.

Not so, counters Hardy. The indexing system was designed to support bureau investigations. “We’re not building a library. If you have something of meaning to the FBI, it’s going to be there.”

Blanton parries, referring to the cross-references that agents choose to include in the electronic index, “No FBI agent is omniscient. They can’t always know what names would be important to another field office or make or break an investigation in the future.”

Things always link back to 9/11, and it turns out that two of the terrorist hijackers were associated with an FBI informant before the attack. If the agent involved had only indexed the informant’s name, how would the hijackers have been found, queries Blanton.

A totally different take from FBI spokesman Richard Kolko: “the reason for the huge number of no-records responses is that it’s become a cult phenomenon to ask the FBI for records on yourself, and most people don’t have FBI records.”

But there are stories that can’t be explained so easily. Jesse Trentadue, a lawyer from Salt Lake City, wanted to investigate a possible connection between his brother’s death in custody and the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. He requested a specific message sent on Jan 4, 1996 between FBI offices, supplying the date, time, sender and recipients of the document, as well as a newspaper clipping with direct quotes from the memo. The FBI told him it did not exist in their records. Trentadue later discovered that the exact memo he’s been after had been released to another FOIA requestor. It’s still unclear how the FBI failed to pull up the message, given the amount of information they had from Trentadue, not to mention the fact that they were able to find it for someone else.

Hardy, on the defensive, says that the law requires them to conduct reasonable, not exhaustive, searches: “We think our system is reasonable.”

The stats seem to indicate otherwise.

The FBI’s policy of requesting privacy act waivers is one of the elements slowing down the info-sharing process. One such privacy act waiver was requested by the FBI from Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is currently a imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for architecting the 9/11 attacks. Apparently, the FOIA request of a journalism student researching the murder of WSJ reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan created quite the stir!

Hardy said, “We are supposed to use common sense and waive that rule, but we correct our errors. We’re processing the Pearl documents now.”

images courtesy of www.gwu.edu and www.ipadrblog.com


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